Brittle talks for Cyprus unification at UN
Differences between two NATO allies, Greece and Turkey, could again block compromise at talks that began today under UN auspices in Geneva to settle the 43-year-old conflict between Greek and Turkish Cypriots.
This is a particularly thorny conflict because the history of Cyprus has long pitted the Greek Orthodox Church against Turkish Islam. After domination by many Empires, including Alexander the Great, ancient Egypt, Romans and Arabs, the Turkish Ottomans ruled this strategic East Mediterranean island for 300 years until Britain annexed it in 1914.
The united island became independent from Britain in 1960 but at once slid into armed conflicts between the majority Greek Cypriots and the 20% minority of Turkish Cypriots. A Greek Cypriot coup d’état aided by the ruling junta in mainland Greece tried to push Turkish Cypriots out of power at all levels in 1974. That prompted Turkey to invade and set up a Turkish Cypriot State in the north on about 37% of the island.
The Republic of Cyprus became a full member the European Union in 2004 and entered the Eurozone in 2008. But its sovereignty extends only to the Greek Cypriot part because the Turkish Cypriot part made a unilateral declaration of sovereignty in 1983, which the international community does not recognize.
The situation has remained frozen because of the presence of 30,000 Turkish troops in the Turkish Cypriot part and regular threats by Ankara to again invade if Greek Cypriots try to control all of Cyprus. That would force Greek troops to enter, causing war between NATO allies.
Meanwhile, the Greek Cypriot part has turned into a developed European economy whereas the Turkish Cypriot part remains far behind both Turkey and Europe. So, it would make sense for Turkish Cypriots to jump at an opportunity to be full citizens of the Republic of Cyprus and enjoy all the benefits of being integrated into the EU.
Yet, so great are the animosities between traditionalist Greek Cypriots, who are Orthodox Christians, that every attempt at bridging the divides has been scuppered. For a while, Turkey was keen to enter the European Union and pushed Turkish Cypriots toward compromises. They voted in favor of a peace blueprint in a 2004 referendum but Greek Cypriots rejected it.
The current negotiations to come together follow on 18 months of intensive preparations and were opened personally by Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci and Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades. That is a good omen because both are from the same hometown and have good relationships with the UN mediator Espen Barth Eide, a Norwegian diplomat named as U.N. envoy in 2014.
But after 11 years of knocking on EU doors, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to have lost interest in seeking EU membership. Partly in reaction, he is leaning towards Russia, away from the US, Europe and the NATO alliance.
British, Greek and Turkish leaders will join the week-long talks on Thursday because they are the guarantor powers of Cyprus under the 1960 agreement that brought it independence. New U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will also attend. In effect, the conflict cannot be settled without Turkish acquiescence.
Both Greece and Turkey remain wary. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Erdogan discussed Cyprus by phone for more than an hour today but a Greek official held out little hope. “Concerning the process, the Greek Prime Minister expressed the view to the Turkish President that he will travel to Geneva only if it is apparent there is the possibility of a deal,” he said.
Turkish and Greek Cypriots are also far part. Tens of thousands were displaced during the 1974 partition and issues of compensation loom large. World Bank and International Monetary Fund officials discussed those issues with the negotiators today but raising enough funds to underpin a deal seems difficult partly because of the EU’s economic problems. Incoming President Donald Trump’s willingness to help is also unknown.
EU relations with Turkey are at a low point because of continuing European criticism of Erdogan’s human rights abuses. He thinks that is unfair because his country has been wracked by increasing bouts of terrorism and is hosting nearly four million refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
However, differences among the EU, Greece and Turkey over Cyprus could be resolved quickly if they were convinced that Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots have reached lasting compromises. Difficult issues remain, including power-sharing, security and territorial lines between Greek and Turkish speakers.
UN diplomats are scheduling a final vote on reunification for June 2017, but their optimism is based more on hope than positive indications. Guterres is pushing forward and has called the talks a historic opportunity for a breakthrough. (By Brij Khindaria)